What exactly constitutes 'national identity', when what is meant by 'nation' is often unclear? Norwegians might say that it has to do with their language, which barely anyone speaks beyond their borders, and an atavistic detestation of anything Swedish. Britons will struggle to come up with an answer, preferring to define themselves as English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish, if not Geordies, Cockneys or Scousers. Spaniards will probably argue that they're a collection of nations in any case. France, however, is different from most European countries in that it was one of the very first to embrace the idea of nationhood as we now understand it and could even be said to have invented it in its modern guise; and this, despite the remarkably heterogeneous nature of its population. 

The Massilia of the Greeks was no different from the Marseilles of today in that it funnelled immigrants from the whole of the Mediterranean basin long before anyone had thought of a word such as 'muticulturalism' — which wouldn't have meant anything in the classical world anyway. In 1790, the golden year of the Revolution, when it really seemed that life —not just society, or the political system — could be reinvented, this concept, 'nation', became synonymous with France itself. But, as many foreign travellers remarked at the time, the tricolore was not the only flag displayed above the secular altars of the Republic; they noticed how the Union flag and the Stars and Stripes featured in those manifestations of patriotism; this was not just a salute to the support of pre-eminent Englishmen and Americans such as Charles Fox and Benjamin Franklin, but to the essential brotherhood of man. There was, from its inception, an element of supranationality in the French idea of nationhood as defended by the constitutional monarchy, then by the Republic. 'Foreign' volunteers joined 'French' ones on the battlefields of Valmy and Jemappes, where one of their most brilliant officers was the future Maréchal de France, Jacques Macdonald, whose Jacobite parents hailed from South Uist in the west of Scotland. Jean-Paul Marat, one of the chief ideologues of the Paris Commune of that era, was of Italian extraction and had been born in the then-Prussian district of Neufchâtel. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the idol of the sans-culottes, was Swiss, of course. Going back four generations in my own family, I find ancestors from Normandy, the Auvergne, Provence and Scotland, many of whom later scattered throughout the colonies (where, not so incidentally, they mixed with the natives to a degree unknown in any other imperial culture). In which I am a typical Frenchman. In other words, the notion of ethnic homogeneity has no place in any discussion about French identity, historically or otherwise — whatever Jean-Marie Le Pen might have to say about it; and whatever those who bristled with righteous indignation during the recent 'quotas scandal' might care to think. This might surprise some, as Laurent Blanc was forced to apologise publicly for words he'd used in that now infamous private meeting of the French Football Federation — the only mistake he made, in many people's view.

I'll come back to this sorry affair later, and to how facts were made to stand on their heads to feed political controversy. Quite extraordinarily, one of the few segments in French society which can be said to have achieved proper ethnic and racial integration was pronounced guilty before it had been tried; when the trial finally came, in the form of an independent official inquiry into the 'scandal', and it was established beyond any doubt that there was no case to answer, that at no point had it been decided to establish 'quotas' in youth academies, the matter was dropped, sanctions lifted — but the blemish couldn't be erased. There are now tens of thousands of people, at home and abroad, who are convinced that French football is rife with institutional racism and discrimination, when it should be hailed as a model. We should not be too surprised by that: football can be used as a blank canvas on which to project fantasies which are quite unrelated to football itself. It was convenient to ignore how French football had in fact long turned its back on xenophobia and racialism; how it had, without fuss or undue soul-searching, been truthful to an idea of national identity which is genuinely inclusive and in which the fathers of the Republic could have found an echo of their own aspirations. Those who condemned Laurent Blanc had, in all probability, never heard of Raoul Diagne and those who followed him.

Diagne played the first of his 18 games for France on 15 February 1931, in a friendly against Czechoslovakia, a game the French lost 2-1 to a late penalty. That he'd been picked when his 21st birthday was still eight months away was not a surprise to anyone. 'The Spider', as he was nicknamed (because of his remarkably long legs), was already considered one of his country's most reliable — and dangerous — full-backs. He'd often swap positions with his left- or right-winger towards the end of tight games for his club Racing, when his physical presence (he was 1.87m tall, a giant by the standards of that time) could create havoc in the opposition camp. In truth, the most remarkable thing about Diagne was that his presence among the 11 Bleus on that winter day was not remarked upon. 

Because Diagne was black, the very first player of African origin to represent a then colonial power at international level1.  The lack of hostility he encountered from football crowds or the press might surprise students of French history, who'll be aware of the emergence of far-right groups there in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when many war veterans, disgusted by the (very real) corruption of their elected representatives, yearned for a 'strong man' and looked up to Benito Mussolini as a kind of hero. But this should give us a clue to understand what happened, or, more pointedly, what didn't happen then, and to what is happening now. No bananas were thrown on the pitch of the Stade de Colombes. No columnists lamented the dilution of good, sound French blood. Prejudice is not quite the same thing as racism. One is based on unfamiliarity and ignorance, both of which co-existence and the passage of time can cure; the other on instinctive, irrational fear and irrevocable hatred. The France of that time was undoubtedly prejudiced. But racist? I don't think so. 

Only three years before Diagne's first call-up, Jack Leslie, the London-born Plymouth Argyle inside-left, had been told he'd play for England — that is, until the board of selectors realised that the handsome, swarthy youth's father was Jamaican. The invitation was swiftly withdrawn. England would have to wait half a century, until 1978, for a black man to wear the national jersey and we all know how much was made of Viv Anderson's debut. By contrast, in 1986, L'Equipe came up with a remarkable statistic, one which is unique in Europe, I believe: 200 of the 600 players who'd worn the French jersey since we played our very first international, a 3-3 draw against Belgium in 1904, had been of 'foreign' origin. Most of them hailed from the colonies or had fled persecution: Spanish Republicans, Italian anti-fascists, Austrian and German Jews. French football never took players at face value.

This is why the almost universal opprobrium it suffered in the wake of the infamous 'quotas' affair hurt so many, and so much. Indeed, France's indifference to the national or ethnic origins of its representatives has been one of the major reasons why it has risen so high from inauspicious beginnings. I look at the team that lost, so narrowly, a World Cup quarter-final 3-1 against the holders Italy in 1938. Diagne is there. So is Ben Bouali, an Algerian; Julien Darui, from Luxemburg, who was voted French goalkeeper of the century in 1999; Héctor Cazenave, the naturalised Uruguayan defender; 'Fred' Aston, Red Star's twinkle-toed winger, whose father was English; Laurent Di Lorto, the son of Italian immigrants; Ignace Kowalczyk, the Pole; César Povolny, born in Germany; Auguste Jordan, the Austrian refugee; Mario Zatelli, another Italian, whose family had settled in North Africa and who would lead Olympique de Marseille to the League and Cup double in 1972. Twenty years later, at the 1958 World Cup, in which France, in terms of the quality of its football, was only bettered by a magnificent Brazil, the team that finished third in that tournament comprised three Poles, two Italians, one Ukrainian, one Spaniard and two North Africans, one of whom, Just Fontaine (born in Marrakech), still holds the record of the most goals (13) scored in one single final phase of that competition. Foreigners, or men of foreign origin — that's the way 'communautarists' would describe them, anyway. Because for us, they were French — the living, playing proof that 'Frenchness' doesn't equate with the stereotype of berets, blanquette and baguettes. Like Michel Platini, Luis Fernandez, Jean Tigana, Lilian Thuram, Patrick Vieira and, today, Alou Diarra or Samir Nasri. Is it any wonder that French football as a whole felt such pain when a publicity-hungry website (Mediapart; number of black journalists: zero) leaked out the transcript of a private discussion that had taken place among the panjandrums of the FFF in November 2010?

The true scandal of the 'quotas affair' is the way in which it was reported, not just in a neurotic France which is already bracing itself for what promises to be a particularly noxious 2012 presidential election, but in countries that lag far behind the république in terms of racial integration (at least as far as football is concerned; elsewhere, it is a rather different story). In a matter of hours following their publication online, the website's allegations had become gospel truth for everyone, it seems, including the BBC, who chose the headline: "French football 'had racial quotas'". Note — no transcript had been made available yet. But judgement had already been passed. Of course, the 'story' was poppycock. No quotas had been enforced, no instructions had been passed on to youth academies and training centres to bar 'players of black and Arab origin', as was implied everywhere. What had happened was that, in the course of a three-hour meeting, the then National Technical Director François Blacquart (who served a brief suspension before being cleared and re-instated) had touched upon the very delicate question of 'bi-national' players. As he had every right to do. Because of the laxity of Fifa regulations and because France is a country which, far more generously than others, bestows nationality on whoever is born on her soil, regardless of where his or her parents might have come from, a very large number of second- and sometimes third-generation 'immigrants' (to use Jean-Marie Le Pen's awful vocabulary) can switch their allegiance from France to a different footballing nation if they haven't been selected for the French senior team. Every football federation from francophone Africa has paid observers in situ, whose task is to convince very young men to represent countries in which they've often never set foot. Scouts from Qatar are known to haunt youth tournaments in the Parisian banlieues to entice Muslim teenagers, without notable success so far. As a result, dozens of footballers who were born, raised and coached in France eventually turn up for other international teams. Now, is this a problem? If yes, what can be done? That, and nothing else, was the subject of the informal discussion that was secretly taped by Mohammed Belkacemi, a mid-ranking official who looked after development programmes in inner cities, and then passed on to unknown intermediaries until it finally exploded on the worldwide web. Six months after the event. Six months? Why?

To go back to the question of so-called 'bi-nationals', the debate was swift and decisive. It was a fact of life, full stop. Quotas made no sense. Laurent Blanc said, 'I wouldn't have a problem selecting a France team that was made 100% of black players. They're as French as you and me.' That quote wasn't widely reported, strangely. In fact, those players who opted to turn up for Mali, Algeria or, indeed, Poland (the Lille attacking midfielder Ludovic Obraniak, for example, who was born in France and was capped for France at Under-21 level) were, with very few exceptions, not quite good enough to make it at the highest level. The only reservation that could be made was that 'bi-nationals' blocked the path of other youngsters who didn't have the option to get a different passport — perhaps. But the benefits far outweighed the drawbacks. What's more, France, the former imperial power, had a moral debt towards its former colonies, which couldn't be taken to task for approaching men whose family had been uprooted in France's interest in the first place. The committee soon concluded — after some of its members made rather clumsy statements, it must be said — that 'quotas' (a word that was only used once) were unworkable and fundamentally discriminatory.

But the waters were troubled by another issue raised in the same discussion: Laurent Blanc spoke of the emphasis most clubs placed on athleticism when recruiting players as young as 12 or 13. That trend, which runs contrary to the essence of the 'jeu à la française' and to the evolution of football as a whole, has been noticeable for at least two decades in France. Why that is so is perhaps better understood if you look back to the 1960s and 1970s, when some very accomplished French national teams were undone by technically inferior opponents because les Bleus lacked strength and stamina. It became something of a national obsession. As Arsène Wenger put it, "we suffered from a physical deficit". Most of the coaches who re-shaped the pyramid of French football in the 1980s and 1990s had been players themselves in that era of repeated failures and were acutely aware of this handicap; as is so often the case, trying to redress a problem led to a reversal of priorities which created problems of a different kind altogether. Skills were neglected, balance was lost, and the reinvention of the youth system which allowed a multi-racial French team to become world and European champions in 1998 and 2000 turned into a necrosis. This is what Blanc meant when he alluded to some coaches privileging 'blacks' because, well, at the age of 12 or 13, they were much bigger than Caucasians (or Arabs, a point missed by many) of the same age. Anyone who's walked the streets of Abidjan, Lagos or Dakar will know Blanc had a point. Be it because of diet, DNA or lifestyle, a teenage Ivorian, Nigerian or Senegalese is, on average, a stronger-built individual than, say, an Algerian — or a Kenyan. Is this racist? Of course not. Blanc might not have expressed his views in terms that were palatable to the more politically-correct readers of his comments, but he wasn't talking to them at the time. Had it not been for a rat, they'd never have heard them. The man who'd made Alou Diarra the captain of France and breathed life back into a shell-shocked national team by — among other decisions — putting an end to the ostracism of players of Maghrebin lineage at the 2010 World Cup (a very touchy subject, which points at other ethnic fault-lines within France, namely between African and Arab communities) didn't deserve to be vilified by men such as his former teammate Lilian Thuram. 

Christophe Dugarry, one of Zinedine Zidane's closest friends, and a World Cup winner with the Parma right-back, pointedly reminded his former teammate that when France won the trophy in 1998, Thuram had asked for a picture to be taken of the French 'blacks' gathered around it. What if Duga had requested the 'white' players to do the same? But Thuram's agenda was purely political — his personal ambitions are an open secret in France — and ignored the most important fact of them all, which he should have been aware of, he, one of the 'Blacks, Blancs, Beurs' who triumphed in 1998. 

It is that the dream of a 'rainbow nation' that was born in the Stade de France that year is not as hollow as some would make it today. What should never be forgotten is that, had it not been for the remarkable way in which French football learnt, so early, to open itself to players of all origins, that dream would never have been dreamt. Until very recently, Ligue 1 was the only major championship in the world in which two of the country's top six clubs, Bordeaux and PSG, were managed by black men, Jean Tigana, born in Mali, and Antoine Kombouaré, a Kanak from New Caledonia. Like every other former imperial power, France is groping for a new sense of national identity. And in this, football is leading the way, in 2011 as in 1931, when a tall black man walked onto the pitch and sang the Marseillaise.

That story, by the way, has an extraordinary ending. Raoul Diagne became the manager of Senegal after his father's country gained independence and, on 18 April 1963, his team beat a French amateur XI in the final of the 'Games of Friendship'. He lived long enough to see the Teranga Lions emulate this feat on a far bigger stage, at the 2002 World Cup, before passing away at the age of 92, in France. To the Senegalese, he is the 'grandfather' of their football. To me, he is also a Frenchman who took pride in representing my country, which was also his. Which is ours.